Today I have a guest author, who I commissioned to write this article on the subject of Writing Humour... I am currently writing a chapter on that topic in my soon to be published book WRITING MEMOIR, How to Tell a Story from Your Life . Dave is someone who knows a great deal about comedy, a lot more than I do. . someone who can walk into a room and have everybody laughing within seconds - so here's his article - the author? It's David Powell Davies.
The Use of Comedy/Humour in Memoir writing
(much of it can be applied to fiction writing too)
and How to Tap into your own Comedic Talents.
by David Powell Davies
It’s very easy to tell a joke, but to tell it and have people laugh requires comic talent and not everyone is a comedian. However everyone has a sense of humour and can find aspects of life and human and animal behaviour funny. The trick is, not to try to be a funny somebody else, but to say what you find funny. How do you do that? One way is by careful choice of vocabulary which illustrates what you find funny.A joke : (I’ve literally just made this joke up to illustrate the use of vocabulary and the pacing or rhythm of line and how it adds to the humour of the situation.)
Ahmed is lying on his hospital bed, seriously ill, he is hooked up to a life support machine. His wife Putri is weeping by his bed side.
Ahmed: “Don’t cry my dear. If I go I will meet Allah.”
Putri: “Oh don’t say that Ahmed, don’t talk about going.”Ahmed: “And I will meet Mohammed and my 25 virgins.”
Putri: “25 what!?”
Ahmed: “I have been promised them by Allah.”
Putri has stopped crying, she leans forward with a steely glint in her eyes.
Putri: “Well good luck,” she says switching off the life support with a smile.
A touch of dark humour, may not be 100% pc - many jokes aren't, but it’s about letting the picture that you've drawn of the character create the humour in the mind of the reader. ‘Steely glint, good luck. With a smile.’ The vocab is succinct and draws the picture clearly. Also the pacing of “25 what!?” keeps the rhythm going whereas “What did you just say Ahmed?” would slow the whole thing down. Choosing the right word is essential to humour in writing. The only way to do that is practice, read it to yourself, choose again and again until you find the right word.
Which leads on to how a painful, dark, or tragic episode in one’s life can have humorous facets about it. I’m thinking of the book “Crow” and the coffin scene from my “Fragments Of An Isolated Childhood”. The link between great sadness and sorrow and laughter is paper thin sometimes. A character can say or do something which in retrospect makes you laugh in sheer disbelief. A sombre, sad occasion can be hilarious if placed in a bizarre situation. Dark situations have humour in them and the humour makes them realistic. For example you might be writing about someone with a dysfunction or a dysfunctional family. This can be shown more effectively if you show the light with the dark. For some reason “My Family And Other Animals” (Gerald Durrell) springs to mind here. Basically the whole family is dysfunctional but the humour is in the way that each of them reacts differently to a situation. Gerald Durrell doesn’t try to be funny but his character descriptions are so finely drawn, we see each of them behaving in their own bizarre way. Another classic example is Sue Townsend “The Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 and 3/4”.
A character that features in your memoir might be funny in your memory. Why do you remember the person as being funny? Did they always speak in a lugubrious manner. [Here Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh springs to mind. He's so miserable, it's funny.]
Choose your vocabulary to enhance their mournful qualities. If they speak, write what they say in a slow, plodding, gloomy way. Did they speak with a stutter, a squeaky voice, or a lisp that you found funny. Again a careful choice of vocabulary can recreate them in the reader’s mind.( e.g. Violet Elithabett Bott – ‘Just William’ girl with a lithp.)
I would say as a rule of thumb never aim to be funny. If you’re not a comic, clown, comedian, or naturally funny person who is always looking for and finding the humour in every situation, then it will sound forced and stilted. However if a situation or experience you had at a time in the past was amusing then think objectively about the experience and pinpoint what it was you found funny. That will then be your focus as you recount the moment. Do not try to mold it into being funny, it will sound contrived. Just describe the moment and keep your focus on the core reason why you found it funny. Again carefully choose your vocabulary to aid and strengthen your core focus. Read it out aloud to yourself. Does it make you smile? Yes? Then good you’ve tapped into the humour of that moment. Remember if it makes you smile, then it will make other people smile. It might not make some people smile but everybody’s humour is subjective.T..T.. T.. Timing. A comedian knows that if they delay the punch line by a second longer than they should, then they have killed the joke. Or if they have unnecessary words that delay or get in the way then the joke or story they are telling loses its impetus. Ok so you are not a comedian but do not faff around, do not waffle. Again focus on the incident and do not pad it out. Do not add words to make it funny. Keep your writing sharp and to the point. Yes of course use vocabulary that enhances the core humour in your story but be very selective and cut out any unnecessary vocabulary that muddies or breaks the rhythm of your story.
Juxtaposition is very useful in creating humour. Putting unexpected things side by side to produce a funny contrast or highlight an absurdity. Some may remember John Cleese and the two Ronnies in the ‘I’m Upper Class I look down on them, I’m Middle Class I look up to him and down on him, (And then Ronnie Corbett looks up at them both and then says, ‘I get a pain in the neck’ sketch. Absurd situation and contrast.
Another aspect of juxtaposition is ‘the rule of three’. This is where the writer/speaker is describing something and gives two similar examples to set/ create a pattern but then completely surprises you by breaking the pattern.
For example : Someone could be describing where they live, their environment.
It was a beautiful day. The sun shone warmly on the daffodils outside, the birds singing in the trees and the pig farm next door.
Or a touch of Welsh humour:
1st woman : I see Mrs Jones’s son is back from Oxford University.2nd woman: Yes, he’s such a clever boy and so handsome.
1st woman: Yes that's true .... [pause] A pity about his club foot.
Thanks Dave for those insights into writing humour. You reminded me of some very funny books and stories.
The Spaces in between
'.... she trusts her reader to fill in the gaps. 'Do not underestimate the silences or breaks in a line,' she urges. Well I don't. Here such quietnesses surely amount to silent screams.'
Candia McWilliam, Guardian article re her memoir, What to Look for in Winter.
I have realised that some of my best photographs (I am a keen amateur photographer) have a lot of space in them, a lot. There's one of a beach, in the foreground there is a large expanse of sand and pebbles, small waves spreading over wet sand, grey sea. In the distance are small figures, paddling. The colours are soft and muted. It is so very British - there are no lush tropical colours about this beach. I took the picture a few years ago on a beach in West Sussex. Candia's words somehow reminded me of that picture.. I can look at it many times and enjoy the quietness, the coolness, the delicate colours and most of all the space, which gives it a timeless dreamy quality.
Sometimes what makes good writing is not what is said, what is in the foreground, it is the spaces in between. Maybe that's also what makes good art - the use of space. Pinter and Beckett were masters of this art. - was it The Birthday Party or The Homecoming where Pinter's character's show so brilliantly our human struggle to communicate with so few words spoken and so many pauses in the dialogue? The silences are heavily laden with sometimes hostility, sometimes grief or sadness. Sometimes just boredom. Beckett too in Waiting for Godot uses silence to powerful effect.
Writing good dialogue keeps words to a minimum and leaves so much unsaid. Just as in real life. If you listen to conversation amongst a group of people, what creates atmosphere and highlights the existential pain is not how we communicate, it is how we don't.
To be able to create that as a writer - that's what makes for great writing.
I've been reading Stephen King (one of the best selling crime writers in the world) in his book On Writing and his thoughts on character and dialogue. He has some strong opinions. He does not believe you should describe people's clothes or appearance too much. Rather you should leave it to the imagination of the reader, a few broad brushstrokes - not every spot and pimple. He gives examples and I can see his point clearly. He creates a scene - a dark bar, throws in a few people - you don't want the story held up by long descriptions of those characters - they are there to paint the scene, create the atmosphere, perhaps they'll be part of the plot, perhaps not, we don't know yet.
So as I'm sitting here in my local café, drinking my green tea I thought I'd try a bit of character description about a few people passing the window or sitting at the bus stop. You can tell me if the character appears lifelike or not. It's been snowing on this April day, so everyone is wrapped up to the eyeballs - it should be Spring, the blossoms are on the trees and we're all sick to death of our winter clothes.
Quite a few people are passing up and down the pavement and it's actually quite difficult to describe them without a situation to put them into. Which is exactly what Stephen King was saying - when he writes a new book, he starts with a situation and a couple of characters in that situation. He says then he's like an archaeologist with a small trowel, digging and releasing bits of the story and he often has no idea how it's going to end. The characters and how they handle the situations develop a life of their own and he says that often the ending surprises him, he didn't see it coming. So for all those how-to-write books or those who like to plan everything in advance - chew on that! STEPHEN KING DOES NOT PLAN HOW HIS BOOKS TURN OUT. HE DOES NOT SIT DOWN AND WRITE OUT A FRAMEWORK AND A PLOT before he starts writing a book. Writing a book is not about planning and following a prepared design or formula.
There's a woman leaning against the outside glass next to me, she has limp blonde hair, the corners of her mouth are drawn down, she's wearing (you see I DO want to describe her clothes) bright pink and black patterned leggings and a thick long grey woven coat. She has two bags of shopping and is smoking a thin rolled cigarette. She has the look of someone who's got a lot to think about.
Now if you were a novel writer where would you place her in your story? And although I see Stephen King's point about leaving much of the description to the reader's imagination, maybe it's an author gender difference but I like some clothes description. Those bright black and pink leggings were a bit of a statement weren't they? They say, this woman is not shy and retiring, she's got the confidence to wear striking patterns and colours. And leaning against the café window having a fag - that's a statement too - I'm tired and I don't care what you think, I've had a difficult day. And when I get home I'm going to pour myself a large glass of Cabernet Sauvignon and throw a steak under the grill and damn the lot of you.
Actually can you see what's happening here - Stephen King's right, my little silver trowel is already beginning to dig around and to weave a story around the woman in her pink and black leggings. I was just thinking, what situation shall I put her in - but that's the wrong way round for Stephen King - he starts with the situation, then the characters. Still the woman is beginning to inhabit my mental landscape, there is a story forming around her.
A short story I wrote before, came about when I was given a postcard at a writer's workshop - it was a photo of a young girl in a winter coat with a large star of David attached to the front of the coat. A Jewish kid from the ghetto before World War II. A whole 5000 word story emerged from seeing her on that postcard. She and her story came alive in my mind, it wanted to get out, it had to be told.
The thing is, although Stephen King's words echo in my head and he's certainly got me reflecting, he's writing about his own writing processes (which is useful to hear about), but we all have different ways to create on that blank page in front of us. From what I've read in his book so far I think Mr King would probably agree with me. He's not writing a rule book for writers, rather he's musing about his own (and other writers he follows) writing processes and trying to delve into how it all works. And I thank him for that. Now about that woman in the black and pink leggings ... who's she going home to? Where's my silver trowel?
Oh you people, I see God in the flowers,
And you see Him in the graveyards,
That is the difference between me and you.'
Omar Mohammad Batawil was a 17 year-old freethinker from Yemen, who shared his thoughts and criticism of religion and religious scholars and institutions on his facebook page. He was accused of apostasy and murdered on April 26th by an Islamist group.
I decided to write about this a few weeks ago and now I can't remember why. Was it because this young man's death was so shocking. Partly, Most of all I think it was the beautiful simple words he left behind. Today they are rioting in France :
'The demonstrations as well as work stoppages, notably in the aviation and public transport sectors, were the latest actions in a protest wave that began two months ago.
Opponents of the reform, billed as an effort to reduce chronic unemployment - which stands at 10 per cent overall - say it will threaten cherished workers' rights and deepen job insecurity for young people[Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article].
10% unemployment and they riot in France. In Zimbabwe, the economy, destroyed by Mugabe makes it now the second poorest country in the world. For 10+ years now unemployment has been at 90%. YES that's 90%. That's why 82% of the wild animals ranging the reserves and plains there have been destroyed - hunger and starvation of the human population. Animals are food or tusks.
Meanwhile Syria, once beautiful has been decimated, the ancient monuments of Palmyra bomb blasted and traumatised people are fleeing to the West, looking for sanctuary. Women and children have seen torture and beheadings and the ones that have made it to Europe are damaged and traumatised.
And in the midst of all this Omar Mohammad Batawil, a 17 year old from Yemen, writes beautiful words and is murdered for them. He sees God in the flowers and so many of us see God (whatever version you choose) only in the graveyards. Maybe that's when we notice our spiritual selves, when death confronts us.
ALL ABOUT THE STORY
MY FIVE POINT METHOD FOR WRITING A GOOD STORY
Story telling is an art. I've known a few people who could tell a great story and make me laugh so much I was hugging myself. My ex's Auntie Jessie was one (long dead) - maybe it was from her that he inherited his comic gift. Visiting her, a plump Welsh woman, was always a great treat - tea, cakes and laughter, sometimes I'd be crying with laughter.
Then there was my uncle Billy and aunt Beryl. I remember a knock on our door at 10 am one Sunday morning in Hampton-on-Thames, 20+ years ago - Beryl had plunging necklines and false eyelashes, Billy was portly and had a big cigar in his teeth...we listened to story after story, clutching large brandies and cracking up laughing. Then they swept out leaving us gasping for air and slightly drunk at 11 am.yd My aunt Beryl is 90 now and my uncle is long gone, sadly. But I’ll never forget any of them and how much they made us laugh with their hysterically funny stories.
If only I could tell stories like that ... I'm still practising. Meanwhile, I’ve put together five main components for a good written story. I think I have learnt that. You may want to add your own points too!
Click on the title for a link to my new book...
a memoir about my journey across South Africa and life in Cape Town
in the time of apartheid in the 1970s. It's a true story - have a look ...
Written story-telling is another dimension. Whether a story makes you laugh or cry, a good story immerses you in a different world and takes you away from the cares of your present.
1. A good plot and well-defined characters, brought to life by dialogue. Think about the emotional impact you wish to evoke in the reader. Trace the route in your head through to the finale. The story should grip the reader from the opening sentence. Or start with the conclusion and work backwards - how will you get there? Close observation gives detail and makes the story come to life.
2. Be original and unusual in your treatment of the subject (not another pot boiler). Build the reader's involvement slowly, take them down a few tangents so it's not clear where the story's going. Let the end be unexpected. Build the reader's anticipation.
3. Setting is important, culture, country, rural, urban, make it start/end in a specific place - a meeting in a park, a pub, a coffee bar, a house It's a sunny day, it's raining, cloudy, hot, cold. Paint a picture, splash some colours, sounds and smells around. The smell of dust, pigs, manure, petrol, curry etc
4. Grammar and spelling must work - a story has to be crafted carefully, keep the adjectives to a minimum, tone down flowery language or get rid of 'purple prose;. The dialogue must be natural, colloquial, flow in short bursts.
5. Endings: If you set up a puzzle or conundrum or mystery, it should move towards some kind of resolution, some kind of satisfaction of the plot, that ties together the whole story.
Whether the story is based in fact
or fiction the components are still the same.
This article was inspired by one by Amy Reichert titled Libraries: Still all about the story Click here for a link.
Six Tips for Successful Public PerformanceIf you want to just brush up your technique, read on. If the idea of performing induces mental paralysis, then you might want to take part in my next Performing Skills workshop (Dates to be posted soon for January 2016, let me know if you want to be put on the list. Spaces are limited). Performing well, like anything else, can be learnt. I acquired this skill a long time ago. Before that, the idea of speaking up in front of an audience or cameras froze my brain into utter panic. Because I learnt how, I can teach you. I’ve spent many years as both a workshop leader and a performer.
But let’s start at the beginning. Here’s some basic tips, they may sound obvious but people often ignore them resulting in poor performances:
A LINK TO MYBOOK FOR SALE ON AMAZON
you can now buy it for Kindle too at a bargain price!
1. PLANT YOUR FEET – that’s both feet firmly on the ground, hip distance apart. Feel the floor. What colour are the walls? What furniture is in the room? How many people in the audience? And breathe – notice if you’re holding your breath, let it go. Take a deep breath – bring oxygen to the brain cells.
This is all part of ‘grounding.’ When you’re in a place of fear, your mind flies off with the fairies. These techniques can bring it back. Look at your audience (inexperienced performers look everywhere but …), make eye contact with some of them, briefly. Most audiences are rooting for you. They want you to succeed. Get a friend to sit in the front row. Ask them to smile and clap in all the right places
2. introducE yourself. It’s amazing how many new public speakers/performance poets forget to do that (done it myself). You look out at a sea of faces, you pull out your piece and start reading your topic quickly, hiding behind your sheet of paper. Start by looking at your audience and say your name. Say something brief about the poem, or a small fact about you as a poet.
‘My name’s X and I’m going to talk about/tell you about/read you this poem about …. whatever!’
3. Speak up and project your voice. I’ve been to so many venues where the new (or sometimes more experienced speakers even) mumbles into their page with their head down. Even if they’re asked to speak up, they usually increase the volume for 30 seconds and then sure enough the voice drops gradually back to a mumble.
Do you want anyone to hear what you have to say? May be you need to take more writing classes, until you’ve got something that could entertain an audience.
To project your voice means to lift your head up, stand firm and look to the back of the room. Aim your voice, as if a missile, to bounce off the walls at the back, so EVERYONE can hear what you say. That’s your job as a performer - at the very least, let us hear you.
4. USE THE MIC. If you don’t (yet) have a strong voice, at least learn to use the mic correctly. Most people make the mistake of standing too far away from it. It should be adjusted for your height so the mic’s a few inches away from your mouth, which should be about a hand’s span away. Further than that and the mic will NOT pick up your voice – so unless you have a Megavoice that can be heard anyway, we are back to square one –
NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU.
5. SLOW DOWN. Beginners not only mumble but they talk through their piece at mega-speed - why? It’s like their thinking ‘Let’s get through this torture as fast as possible.’ They’re sure no one will want to listen to what they’ve written. Pace it slowly. You don’t have to learn your piece by heart. Don’t hold your sheet of paper high in front of your face. Use it as a prompt if possible, glance at it, don’t appear to be reading every word. AND SPEAK THE PIECE SLOWLY AND CLEARLY.
6. Entertain your audience. Finally don’t just read out a long diatribe of pain and angst. I’ve heard that pretty often with beginners (and others). We all go through bad times, but don’t wallow. Highlight it with humour if you can, tone it down and hint at pain and angst (if that’s your topic today), allude to it briefly. Don’t drag us all down with the endless misery of it.
The other mistake new speakers/performers/poets make is to produce the Opus Magnus, their BIG work, pages of it. Please don’t inflict an inexperienced performing style on the audience, together with a long dirge. Make us laugh, keep it light. The audience is inwardly groaning and stops listening before the end of the first page. KEEP IT SHORT – less than ONE PAGE if you’re new to the game. Save the OPUS MAGNUS for when you’re an experienced performer who can follow the above tips with practised ease.
After a while if you follow these techniques, you'll start to enjoy performing, have fun with it and what's more important - so will your audience!